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7:00pm on Sunday, 17th May, 2009:

The Hunter and the Hunted


MMO design is an art form.

People who don't play MMOs seem to have a hard time believing this. Even people who play them can often have a hard time believing it. When I tell them that I, as a designer, will "read" what another designer is "saying", they'll usually indulge me but don't press the issue; it's as if they don't believe me, but are too polite to say so (probably just as well, given the mixed metaphor — things that are "said" must be spoken, and you can't read speech).

Anyway, today I'm going to present a reading for you. There are maybe 20 people in the world right now to whom this makes the kind of sense it makes to me, few of whom read QBlog, but hopefully it's not going to be entirely nonsense to the rest of you.

I'm going to talk about one of my favourite zones (from a design persepctive) in World of Warcraft: Stranglethorn Vale (STV). In particular, I'll be looking at the Nesingwary "mastery" quests.

Some basic points about this zone:

There are many means by which designers can say things to players, but the one I'm going to talk about here involves quests. Other elements play into this — the artwork and music for STV are wonderfully evocative of mood, for example — and of course there are particular gameplay elements that are hugely impressive, such as the way each class plays differently (well, played; it's not so great nowadays). I'm not writing a PhD here, though, just giving a demonstration, so I want to narrow things down. Quests are a good way to do this, because they're more specific than MMO-wide systems and can therefore say more specific things.

OK, so the first point to make is that Stranglethorn Vale has a superb quest progression. It's not driven by narrative; rather, it's driven by location. Alliance players start at the very top of the map, in the low level-30s, and the way the quests roll down it in an advancing wave before sparking down the road to Booty Bay is a joy to behold. There's no other zone in WoW that unfolds its quests this well; only Zul'Drak in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion comes near to matching it, but it lacks the road-spark effect. By "spark", by the way, what I mean is that players do quests close to the quest-giver, then gradually further and further away, building up potential until they're ready to run down the (very long) road from the top to Booty Bay at the tip, where another big quest hub awaits. Zul'Drak has the quests roll west-to-east in a similarly accomplished way, but without that arc-light sparking where suddenly you realise you've cracked it. The circular wave attempted in Sholazar Basin is perhaps closest in ambition to Stranglethorn Vale, but I don't feel it really pulls it off (it's a valiant attempt, though).

We'll see why that road-spark is so important to the reading of STV a little later.

The set-up for STV begins in the level-20s. Although to start with there are plenty of quests for hunter/skinner types in the adjacent (Alliance) Duskwood zone, gradually they dry up as the emphasis switches to destroying undead. There are a few wolf types, but basically you end up killing things you can't skin. When you arrive in STV, hunter types are therefore already predisposed to want to kill beasts, so they have something to increase their skinning/leatherworking skills. Non-hunter types are also given reasons to want to kill them, by being attacked by outlying big cats as they set off along the road. In addition to being mildy irritating, these attacks also serve to warn that the whole zone is not as safe as previous zones have been, and in particular that the road is not guaranteed safe for travel. If you try to run off down it, you will be killed if you're too low a level.

Another thing these early attacks from outliers do is establish a hunter/hunted duality. If you see one of the big cats (a panther) and decide to attack it before it attacks you, you'll aggro a whole bunch of other panthers and end up running for your life. It's effectvely a trap. You start off as the hunter, then suddenly find yourself as the hunted.

This hunter/hunted dichotomy is the central theme of STV.

Anyway, early on while you're doing quests from the first hub you (as an Alliance character) find upon entry to STV, you're mainly dealing with a bunch of renegades. The wildlife presents annoyances, but you don't get quests to kill any of it. This serves to build up a desire among players to pick up some quest or other that will enable them to wreak revenge. Now it's easy enough for the designer to provide one of these at any time, but that's not what happens. Instead, the desire is left to stew as more and more quests that involve goblins and trolls appear. Thus, when you finally do find a quest to kill the wildlife, you're really up for it.

This is where the Nesingwary quests come in.

Now the chances are that you're going to find these on your own, although there is a back pointer quest from Booty Bay just in case you don't. There are four quests at the hub: three for hunting and one for the Green Hills of Stranglethorn (which is a learn-to-use-the-auction-house quest that would work if the pages stacked, but because they don't it turns into more of a turesome bag-management quest; its purpose is primarily educational, anyway, not artistic). It's the three hunting quests I'm going to concentrate on here.

Something that All Designers Know is that quests to go and kill N mobiles of type X get less and less fun for larger values of N. The fact that we've not been asked to kill any animals for quests for ages, however, means that at this point players are really up for it. Are they, however, up to killing 90 of them?

Well no,probably not if you put it like that, but they're not actually told that's what's in store. There are three quests initially: Tiger Mastery, Panther Mastery and Raptor Mastery. Each requires you to kill 10 of the named creatures: they're each the start of a 4-quest chain that involves killing 10 creatures of the same type but of a increasingly higher levels, ending with a quest to kill a boss. When you've killed all the bosses, you get a final quest to kill another boss.

So, basically we have the same kill-10-rats quest 9 times, plus the same kill-the-boss quest 4 times. It's just routine, right?

Well no, because these quests are stepped: the levels appropriate for the tiger mastery steps are 31, 33, 35, 37; for the panther mastery steps they're 31, 33, 38, 40; for the raptor mastery steps they're 34, 36, 41, 43. The final boss is also 43, but elite (so "bring friends"). This interleaving allows for variety, and it despatches the players off to various different parts of STV where the target creatures lie, thereby causing happy interactions with other quests relating to areas they pass through. However, even though this is very well done, it's basically just well-accomplished craftsmanship. No, what we also have here is some actual art.

The stepped nature of these hunting quests mean that whatever level you first encounter the Nesingwary camp in STV, there's going to be a quest of an appropriate level for you. It's like a net, spread wide to catch players.

You saw that? A net, spread wide to catch players?

Players may believe that they're in the driving seat here, hunting down the wildlife Nesingwary and his colleagues have listed, but the players themselves are prey! The Nesingwary camp is a content trap, and they fell right into it. This quest hub is saying: as you do unto others, so shall others do unto you. That's just ... stunning! I was awed when I saw it.

Recall the work that's gone into setting this up, too: the deliberate starvation in the preceding zone, the context ("jungle" just screams "big game"), the stoking of anticipation, the provision of motive — by the time the players see those yellow !s, they're chomping at the bit. It's payback time! But if they thought about what was going on for a moment, they'd see that their own situation is analogous to that of their targets. That irony is just so sweet to the taste — oh wow, is it good! I'm glowing with admiration again just typing this.

The road: the early annoyances from wildlife as you wander from the road serve to establish distance-from-road as a metaphor for danger. The further you are from the road, the tougher the mobiles get. However, distance-along-road is also a metaphor for danger: the further along the road you go, the tougher the mobiles also get. That said, you can get further along the road before meeting your match than if you wander sideways from it. The road offers up resistance, but it's not as strong as the resistance put up by areas remote from it. When you finally reach a level where you sense you're competent to strike out, the road is that path of least resistance. The way it "feels" to me is like a neon tube: you put a potential difference between each end, this ionises the neon, which increases the potential, until it's enough to spark across to illuminate the tube. That's why I called it "sparking".

Look at the geography of STV. It's a funnel. All that activity at the top is set up to lead players to the bottom. Although it looks like a trap, though, it's not at all: it's a destiny. It shows that players are ultimately meant to go to Booty Bay at the bottom, but it doesn't make them go there — they go themselves. The only question is, how long will it take them to grow enough to get there?

Booty Bay is the turning point for STV. It's a neutral town — if you attack another player, its guards will attack you. It's where the hunted can finally become the hunter. That's what all the earlier quests were about: giving players the courage to escape. Yes, you are a target, but you don't have to be. This may be a PvP gankfest, but you can handle it; you know you can handle it, because you handled it to get here.

All in all, this is just beautiful design. The placement, the activities, the variety, the way it all unfolds, the way it fits together — I really can't express how beautiful it is. That's part of the point, though; if I could express this kind of thing, I'd do so in words — I wouldn't need to design virtual worlds to do it myself.

OK, so that's a partial reading of STV. I can't emphasis too much that this is just one riff from a far larger symphony. It's much, much more complex than this, with multiple layers that say different things — but always exactly what I was hoping would be said at the time I first came across them. I don't know how much the lead designer for this zone was aware of what was being articulated through it — I'd love to ask, but contrary to what many players seem to think I can't just phone Blizzard and say I want a chat. In one sense, it doesn't matter: the aim of artists is to express themselves — it's the job of others to interpret what has been expressed. As a designer myself, I can read some of those symbols and divine some of the meaning. I can't not do it. I see all this going on the whole time I play.

See why I say I can't play like a player?

To summarise: I've tried in the above to point out some of the "words" that designers use to "say" things; I've tried to state explicitly the meanings of those words even though, as a designer, I just take them on board without having to think (in the same way as when I'm reading actual worlds a book I don't need to look them all up in a dictionary). I've tried to explain how these game-design words are put together to give greater meaning for purposeful effect. I've done all this so that I could show something which only a few people would normally even care to notice: the ability of MMOs to tell players things. The example I chose, the Nesingwary quests, uses internal symbolism to help players transition from PvE to PvP, but MMO symbolism can also be external (indeed, even in these quests it is weakly so: "Hemet Nesingwary" is a somewhat forced anagram of "Ernest Hemingway").

I don't know if I've succeeded in any of this. However, I do know that if anyone tells me MMO design isn't an art form, I will strongly disagree.

Referenced by 5 Today.

Referenced by Cahiers des Jeux.

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Copyright © 2009 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).